Swordsman III - The East is Red

Reviewed by YTSL

John Woo may be the best known Hong Kong director in the West.  The works of Wong Kar Wai and Stanley Kwan -- and even Ann Hui -- probably have played and garnered more honors at the more prestigious international film festivals.  Johnnie To and his Milkyway Productions may be the current top dogs in the now Special Administrative Region of China.  For this fan of movies from that part of the world though, it is Tsui Hark and his Film Workshop who really rule, excite and stimulate as well as often transport me into fantastic fantasy realms which would be beyond most other people's imaginations and abilities to bring into (cinematic) being.
Yu Rong Guang, Brigitte Lin and Eddie Ko
Although SWORDSMAN III:  THE EAST IS RED is undoubtedly a lesser as well as flawed Film Workshop production, there also is no denying its being close to overflowing with incredible sights, sounds, ideas and critiques.  We are, after all, talking about a fantasy drama in which are to be found:  Ninjas on kites; a midget samurai; a pigeon-spitting albino who had been inside the skin of a Highlander woman; martial artists with powers that verge on the -- or indeed are -- supernatural (and hence are able to repel bullets and cannon balls as well as fly!); and so much more.  Then there is the fact, commented upon by David Bordwell in his masterful "Planet Hong Kong" book, that:  "Only about five minutes of THE EAST IS RED...are without musical accompaniment; no more than a minute goes unscored" (2000:186-187).  And what fantastic music much of it is too; the kind that will get under your skin and touch your soul as well as cement itself in your memory!
Amidst all this is the moviemakers' bid to sound off on a whole host of rather serious and weighty topics even while working hard to entertain the audience.  Granted that some people -- who see THE EAST IS RED as just a massive but mainly fun action romp -- might think I myself have gone over the edge when they read the following...but this (re)viewer firmly believes that this clearly ambitious film also contains thought-provoking meditations on such as:  Faith (in the personal and religious sense); power; science versus the mysterious; the individual's bid and (in)ability to affect the course of history; the limits of personal achievement; what ordinary people want; and what is really meant by great success.  Relatedly, Tsui Hark's sense of irony and propensity for political commentary is there for all to see -- yet often not realized by those without the requisite cultural knowledge -- in this film's English title being the same as that of a famous Maoist anthem but its Chinese one literally translating as "Invincible Asia 2: Turbulence Again Rises".
Brigitte, Yu Rong Guang and Joey Wong
Actually, THE EAST IS RED's major problem might well be that it possesses too much for anyone to adequately take in and appreciate -- especially upon a single viewing -- as well as tries to do, say and be too many things on too limited a budget; the logical outcome, perhaps, of its having Ching Siu Tung ("A Chinese Ghost Story" I-III) and Raymond Lee ("Dragon Inn" and "Police Confidential"[!]) as co-directors as well as Tsui Hark as its producer.  In any case, there is no denying that this 108 minute length work is saturated with a near overwhelming feeling of having helmers who favor extreme measures and being incredibly prone to irrational mood swings (characteristics akin to that which one associates with its main character, the single real connection to "Swordsman II", Asia the Invincible).
Considering how much Asia the Invincible looms over proceedings here, there is ample reason to believe that this 1993 production was largely conceived as a way to give fans of the very popular "Swordsman II" further opportunity to luxuriate in the filmic presence of that singular being; whose attraction surely is added by his/her/its being portrayed by the mesmerizing Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia (who stole that 1992 show from the top-billed Jet Li even though she had less screen time than him, Michelle Reis and maybe even Rosamund Kwan).  The leading actress' considerable dramatic -- but also self-parodic -- talents are definitely put to good use by way of having her mercurial character effectively come back from the dead to variously take on the roles of:  Vengeful as well as angry god(dess); questing wanderer; a cocky prostitute in a Japanese military camp; a commander of a Spanish galleon as well as a Japanese warship with the capacity to convert into a submarine; an expert at "sewing needle fu" who can block valves and cause men's hearts to explode on command; and, alternately, a beneficiary, spurner and appreciator of an immensely faithful as well as sensual lover.
Nonetheless, I can't help but think that THE EAST IS RED would have benefited from focusing (even) more on Brigitte Lin's character and having him/her/it interact more with the man who thought it worth dying just to catch a glimpse of the legendary Highlander (Chinese military officer Koo is portrayed Yu Rong Guang) and the concubine who was unwilling to stop loving her master (In tandem with Jean Wong but also Ms. Lin, in an erotic montage which I have taken to calling "the tongue scene"(!), Joey Wong heats up the screen in this by no means insignificant or passive role).  At the very least, this would have made for a less sprawling and better structured picture.  It has to be admitted though that this Brigittephile wished that it had been so in large part because this already satisfying, even if chaotic, work -- which I appreciate more with each additional rewatch  -- would then have contained still more images of and scenes with a charismatic actress whose visage as well as actions I don't think I will ever tire of viewing.
Joey, Jean Wang and Brigitte Lin

My rating for this film:  9. 


Reviewed by Brian

What a glorious, rapturous fevered-pitched mess of a film this is. It is a film that is so full of ideas and images that they are practically stepping on one another in their rush to get into the frame. There simply isn't enough time or space to bring them on in a conventional ordered manner - so like a spectacularly multi-colored butterfly with only a short time to live, the film spins and twirls around in a narcotic dream like adrenaline high expending all its life force in its frantic last moments of life.

This is a world seemingly in total chaos - full of desperate people seeking faith in false idols, a dynasty slowly crumbling and creating a power vacuum, foreigners seeking to make inroads into China. Yet to me the essence of the film is a love story as pure and passionate as two lover's first long awaited kiss. A wanting and a needing so fierce that it nearly consumes all around them. A woman waiting for word of her lover who supposedly lies dead at the bottom of the Black Cliffs. Her lover though is Asia the Invincible and this complicates matters greatly as one might imagine. On top of this, Asia the Invincible seems to be going through a crisis of identity man or woman, god or human and the doubts seem to be leading him/her to the brink of insanity and to a swathe of destruction through the land.
There is no doubt that the film has a number of structural weaknesses ignore them revel instead in the torrent of images and imagination that flow and flood through the film like a river run wild and in the love of Asia the Invincible (Brigitte Lin) and her concubine Snow (Joey Wong).

My rating for this film: 9.0

For many more images of this film - click here.


 
Brigitte, Yuen King, Joey
 
DVD Information:

Distributed by Mei Ah

The transfer has a little wear in a few scenes - but overall is terrific - the dark scenes look great.

Letterboxed

Cantonese and Mandarin language tracks

Subtitles:  Chinese (Traditional), English, Chinese (Simplified), Korean, Japanese, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian & Vietnamese

9 Chapters

It includes it's own trailer and the trailer for Stars and Roses.